Superstitions and Old Wives’ Tales

One year while living in Georgia, a friend came to help me clean up the remains of my New Year’s Eve party. As I began to sweep the floor, she gasped and grabbed the broom right out of my hand. She warned me that sweeping on New Year’s Day is bad luck and put the broom back in my closet. I must admit, after she left, I finished sweeping my floor and suffered no ill effects, except for a mild hangover. Unknown to her, the superstition she followed is an Asian belief that sweeping your floor during the first three days of the lunar New Year will sweep away your wealth.

Superstitions and old wives’ tales are still part of our modern, ultra-informed lives. Even those of us who do not believe in bad luck subconsciously follow old beliefs passed down from generation to generation. We sidestep ladders, avoid the number 13, and expect strange behavior during full moons.

Although old wives’ tales are not the same as superstitions, they seem to be intertwined. Superstitions involve luck, magic or the supernatural. Old wives’ tales are usually remedies, tips or hints for improving your life — a kind of ancient Heloise. It is safe to say many old wives’ tales were influenced by strong superstitious beliefs. I did a little digging to find out where some common myths originated and whether they still hold true today.

Feed A Cold, Starve A Fever

This tale began sometime before 1574, because in that year a dictionary maker named Withals wrote, “Fasting is a great remedie of feuer.” This was a time when there was little anybody could do about a fever, and most people with high temperatures were not really interested in eating anyway. Centuries ago, people also believed most illnesses were caused by either low temperatures or high ones. If you had a cold, you needed to fuel the body to provide more heat. If you were already too hot, you should hold back food to let the body cool off.

In any case, we now know that nutrition is important in all illnesses, so keep the food coming whether you are cold or hot — and plenty of liquids too.

Eating Carrots Will Improve Your Eyesight

There are many fascinating facts about carrots, but we still have no idea how this one actually started. Ancient Greeks and Romans believed carrots were good for eyesight, but they used them more as medicinal herbs instead of food. This may have been because ancient carrots were usually white, yellow, purple and sometimes black — very unappetizing! Modern-day carrots are derived from a Dutch variety first cultivated in the 1600s.

During World War II, British forces used this widespread belief to conceal from the Germans they were using radar. They propagandized that their pilots had such good night vision because they ate a lot of carrots.

Today, we know that carrots are rich in beta-carotene, which is converted to Vitamin A. This vitamin is important to eye health, and night vision in particular. The University of Chicago found adequate levels of vitamin A can decrease the risk of macular degeneration, which leads to blindness. So, while munching on carrot sticks may not replace your glasses, your eyes will still thank you.

If You Go Outside With Wet Hair, You Will Catch Cold

According to, the origin of this one is pretty easy to guess. Since we catch more colds in winter, we associate the cold, wet conditions with being sick. In fact, the reason we catch so many colds during winter is because viruses are spread more easily indoors and in dry air — where we spend most of our time during cold season.

As with many old wives’ tales, however, there is a grain of truth in the tale. Being excessively wet and cold for a long period of time may cause enough stress to lower your immune defenses, leaving you more susceptible to any viruses floating around when you go inside. So, while you will probably be safe if your hair dryer breaks in February, joining the Polar Bear Club might not be a great idea.

Spilled Salt Brings Bad Luck; Throw Some Over Your Shoulder To Ward It Off

Salt has been an integral part of our lives and the world’s economy for centuries. This mineral was even used as money in some ancient societies; in fact, our word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt, “salarium”. Jewish, Greek and Roman civilizations used it in religious rites, and spilling it at the time of sacrifice was considered a bad omen. The belief that spilled salt was a bad omen is further illustrated in Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, where we identify Judas by the spilled salt cellar in front of him.

There are many variations of the results of spilling salt, and how people counter its evil effects. Norwegians and the English believe you will cry as many tears as it takes to dissolve the amount of spilled salt. Germans blame the devil for spilled salt, and the French take it one step further by throwing it over their shoulders to temporarily blind him and distract him from further evil.

Many old wives’ tales have a basis in truth, common sense or good hygiene practices. Over time, some of the practices were also linked to good or bad luck, probably as a way to reinforce a good practice stubborn children were inclined to ignore. After all, it may not really be bad luck to walk under a ladder, but a hammer falling on your head is certainly a good reason to avoid walking through that triangle.

At the risk of my friend hitting me over the head with my broom, I have to admit that I found no reasonable evidence to support the superstitions regarding spilled salt. I also found no practical or hygienic reason to throw it over my shoulder. There is one thing I will avoid, though, and that is spilling it on the floor on New Year’s Day — just so I don’t have to walk through it for three days before I can sweep it up!

Medical writer by day and historical fiction writer by night. I love to write about everything!